24/02/2014 18:13 GMT | Updated 26/04/2014 06:59 BST

More Than a Phone: Mobile Empowering Women

Recently, I visited women in rural Kenya to learn about their lives and challenges. I was struck by the ways many women in Kenya are using technology to transform their lives -- from new ways of cooking that are cleaner and more efficient than traditional stoves to mobile phones that are opening doors to new opportunities.

According to the United Nations' International Telecommunication Union, as of last year, there were nearly as many mobile subscriptions as people on the planet. Even more important than the ubiquity of mobile phones is how they're being used: to empower women.

Mobile technologies put a world of information in the palm of a woman's hand -- and with information comes power to increase learning, make informed choices, connect to the broader world, and pursue jobs.

A report by the United Nations Foundation and the ExxonMobil Foundation, A Roadmap for Promoting Women's Economic Empowerment, found that mobile phones are a promising tool to economically empower women because they provide access to market information for female farmers and rural entrepreneurs, as well as connect them to financial services.

Just as important, they allow women to conduct their finances in private, giving them greater autonomy over how they invest their money. One report found that 85 percent of the women it surveyed feel more independent because of their mobile phones.

The UN Foundation, in cooperation with the Vodafone Foundation and many other partners, has also supported the use of mobile phones to improve women's health. For example, initiatives like the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA) use mobile phones to send pregnant and new mothers information on topics such as antenatal care, nutrition, and postpartum family planning, so they can keep themselves and their babies healthy.

Our experience has shown that mobile health can be a gateway for women to leverage mobile phones for other useful programs like education and financial services.

Why should all of us care whether women worldwide have access to mobile phones and programs? Because when women are connected, healthy, and empowered, the benefits extend beyond their own lives: Families are healthier and better off economically -- and so are their countries and the world.

That's why it doesn't make sense -- and it's not right -- that women are 21 percent less likely than men to own a mobile phone in low- and middle-income countries. That means the world is leaving money (as well as improved health and wellbeing for countless people) on the table. In fact, the GSMA Development Fund and the Cherie Blair Foundation found that closing the mobile gender gap would generate $13 billion in additional revenue.

There are a number of steps public sector, private sector, and community leaders can and should take to make mobile more accessible to women. These include: making technologies more affordable; addressing suspicions in many communities about how mobile is used; expanding sustainable energy options to power mobile technologies; creating more content directed at women; improving technological literacy among women; and making sure girls aren't left out of the mobile revolution, both as owners and as innovators.

We need to encourage more girls to enter the STEM education fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. If we give girls a STEM education today, they can become the mobile app creators and program developers that can change the world.

Professor Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and an early champion of mobile technologies to improve the lives of women, calls the mobile phone "a digital genie" because "the possibilities are enormous." The opportunity for public leaders, private companies, development organizations, the tech sector, and many others is to enable more women to pursue these possibilities. This is a chance the world can't afford to miss.


Kathy Calvin will be speaking at the Connected Women Summit in London on March 3.